Whether the company knows it or not, What We Did Next has a bit of a feel for being ahead of the curve. Their latest production Pippin is also being revived later this summer at the so-hot-right-now Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester – but obviously, WWDN got there first. They’ve also brought shows like Rent and The Last Five Years to the region ahead of a fair few others since. For a bunch of self-professed “professional amateurs”, they have never lacked ambition – or an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of and passion for musical theatre.
And so, to Pippin, a curious and fascinating 1973 show by Stephen ‘Wicked’ Schwartz, that still bears many of the stylistic hallmarks of its original Broadway director, Bob Fosse. The titular Pippin (Pete Fendall) is the adolescent son of Charlemagne, who is struggling to find his purpose in the world. It’s an anachronistic, fourth wall-breaking romp, full of slapstick and satire – and deep philosophical questions about the human race.
Helping and hindering him along the way is an ever-present chorus, headed by the Lead Player – an ethereal, Puck-ish figure, as seductive as he is menacing and played to great effect here by Chris Walsh, who brought a solid modern vocal to the role and was reminiscent of Cabaret’s Emcee.
A ten piece band/ orchestra and conducting MD looked and sounded impressive, although to do so took up so much of the Unity’s black box space it left the large cast with a relatively thin rectangle of space to manoeuvre. This proved problematic in that sometimes focal moments of scenes ended up shunted up against the far walls of the theatre. To the same end, lighting was tricky at times, with some dance sequences performed in near-darkness or low red hue.
But when the chorus sang it was such a delight to hear that these things were easily forgiven. Highlights included Pippin aspiring to find his purpose on the battlefield and challenging his father’s rule, which lead to scenes both hilarious and joyfully daft (thanks to Matthew Sheffield as Charlemagne and Tom Loughlin as Pippin’s dim half-brother Lewis) as well as poignant (where a slow-motion battle scene was peppered with the death tolls of some of history’s major wars). Use of AV allowed for quick sight gags too (hello, Donald Trump).
Pippin’s journey to “find his corner of the sky” connects with everyone; it’s not just about the personal struggles in trying to find meaning in life, but about self-preservation and the worst excesses of human nature since the dawn of history. And that’s a lot for a two-act musical, but Pippin crams it all in with knowing humour, style, intelligence and jazz hands. That’s my kinda show. A worthy revival.